Lesley McLeod: University is not the only route to a satisfying, well-paid job

Lesley McLeod, CEO, Association for Project Safety
Lesley McLeod, CEO, Association for Project Safety
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There is a nip in the air and a heady tang of falling leaves. The first poinsettias have been sighted in the shops and, already, you can order your Christmas turkey online. So, it must be the start of a new year!

I know the nights are drawing in but I always associate Edinburgh, in autumn, with new beginnings. I first came to live here when, at 17, I arrived from the far north, wet behind the ears and anxious at the start of my inglorious undergraduate life.

I have never regretted my time at the University of Edinburgh. It opened my eyes to Scotland’s tartan patch in the tapestry of the world and the spread of our nation’s incredible people – and their disproportionate achievements. I learned a bit about growing up (which I decided against), developed a more mature love of learning and made lasting, ­life-affirming friendships. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. But might I have done better without it?

At the time, I never queried the ­academic pathway: I’d gone to a pushy, brainy school and it was expected. All my friends were going. It was the only careers advice I got.

I was the first person in my family to be able to go on to tertiary education – and I was proud of it. I saw university – as generations of other Scots did and do – as a means to a better end.

And there can be no doubt, as I write from the position of chief executive of the Association for Project Safety – a national organisation with architects and engineers at the core of its work to cut the injuries and improve the health of construction workers – that I have done all right.

I’ve rubbed shoulders with ­Cabinet Ministers and leaders of FTSE 100 companies; with regulators and ­legislators; but still find it hard to believe a girl from Thurso can have done the things I’ve done. I have been blessed.

But could blessed have been better?

University was my route to achieve greater income and a further step up the social ladder. But I got a grant and graduated straight into a ­management trainee job.

I may have a decent brain but, in ­retrospect, I think I’d have been ­happier if I’d done something ­creative, practical or culinary.

My grandfather was an upholsterer and now I look at plasterers or ­tailors and I wish I could do what they do with ease.

The mantra with which I grew up that, ‘clever girls don’t cook’ still underpins a misplaced attitude to the trades which has, in my view, ­encouraged too many people onto courses that otherwise would have been better learned in less theoretical ways.

I have lectured undergraduates and worry we still wrongly ­foster a belief there’s something falsely ­second-class about learning on the job or getting qualifications at evening classes or through day release.

But the apprenticeship route has many advantages – not least the ­ability to earn while you learn. And I am not alone in thinking so. In 2015/16 – the most recent year for which we have figures – across England, ­Scotland and Wales almost 25,000 people started construction apprenticeships.

This is 25 per cent up on the ­previous two years taking the total to the ­highest figure since the present way of recording apprenticeships began in 2003.

In the same year, the Construction Industry Training Board funded more than 8,400 employers to ­support 24,600 apprenticeships through £57 million in training grants.

Yet you might expect to find ­apprentices on building sites. What you might not have expected is there are more professionals in training in business, administration and the law.

I am grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had. I wouldn’t deny them to anyone else – and I’ve willed much of my estate to ensure others can choose the academic path without incurring a huge burden of debt.

The country needs, as Brexit comes inexorably closer, well-trained, soundly educated and highly ­motivated new professionals. But we must also find better ways of ­filling the skills gap and valuing people, rather than reliance on the quality of degrees and a concentration on book lists and self-reflection.

By aiming to improve the status of the practically-minded, we have shovelled their skills into a corset of curricula, leaving their training ­thinner and more constrained ­without according proper ­recognition for their efforts.

Perhaps it’s time to think again and to realise that everyone has skills that, while they may be ­different, are of no less value.

Lesley McLeod, CEO, Association for Project Safety.